(Julian Schnabel, USA, 1996)


Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat is a far from perfect film, but it is uncommonly haunting and singular. Its portrait of the New York art world, and of a particular artist, has an intimate ring of truth evident in almost no other film on similar topics.

Stern cultural theorists may roll their eyes at yet another eulogisation of a visionary young artist cut down in his prime by self-destructive behaviour. But, for writer-director Schnabel (himself a renowned painter), Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) was indeed a blazing, inspiring flame of creativity, and the film convinces us of this estimation.

Schnabel mercifully avoids most clichés that bedevil the biopic form at present. His portrait of Basquiat and his world is oblique, elliptical, often surprising in its emphases. Certain scenes – such as an unsettling incident in a restaurant – have an intensely drawn-out, emblematic quality, as if they are symbolic tableaux, stations of the Cross in this artist’s doomed journey.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is its way with characterisation. Figures who have already been reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes in the media, especially Andy Warhol (David Bowie), are here brought wryly, affectionately alive. Basquiat himself is an odd, almost alien kind of presence – and Wright conveys brilliantly his dazed insularity, his bursts of activity and flights of fancy, his massive insecurities and neuroses.

The film sometimes suffers from an artless, arhythmic quality, and it takes a long time to find its unique tone. Schnabel as a director is no Gus Van Sant. But, for all its problems, Basquiat is a special film that deserves celebration.

Besides, here is a movie that takes the biggest cliché of the artist’s biopic – the hero being interviewed on-camera by an insensitive art critic (Christopher Walken) – and gradually transforms it into a riveting scene. For that alone, I love it.

MORE Schnabel: Before Night Falls

artist biopics: Frida, Pollock, Passion

MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, The Aviator, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kundun, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Malcolm X, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, What’s Love Got to Do With It?

© Adrian Martin March 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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